Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reluctantly Alice

How much do I love Alice McKinley?  Let me count the ways…one, two, three,  four.  And now here’s a fifth way.
In Reluctantly Alice, Alice McKinley is starting seventh grade.  She and her friends have moved on to junior high, and I’m sure we have all felt the same way Alice feels.  “Junior high sure has a way of mixing you up, tossing kids around like a giant blender.” (p. 92).  Just before the summer began, Alice and her group of friends were at the top of their elementary school.  Everything they did was cool and clever to the younger kids in the school.  Now suddenly they are at the bottom of the barrel, watching the older kids to see what they do (9th grade boys perform a Boxer Check in front of Alice and her astonished girl friends).  At the same time, these seventh graders are desperately trying not to be noticed by older kids.  They aren’t sure what to do, and they feel a little overwhelmed and lost.
Alice has decided to concentrate on having everyone like her this year.  She wants to be the kind of girl that causes everyone to smile when they think of her, and if anyone can do it, you get the feeling Alice can.  She rarely has something mean to say, she’s fun and daring, smart and funny.  Alice is honest and even her mishaps seem endearing.  But almost as soon as the school year begins, Alice has an enemy.  An 8th grader in some of her classes, Denise, starts to dislike Alice and begins to taunt and bully Alice.  Like many bullies, Denise finds what she believes is Alice’s weakness (her mother’s death) and brings it up every chance she gets. This escalates into a serious bullying situation.  Denise and her group of friends throw food, trip Alice, laugh at her…it goes on and on.  And although this book was written before most of the focus on bullying in children’s literature, the solution Alice finds still rings true.  She comes up with this idea on her own, one that works for her without confronting Denise in a mean way (although she certainly thinks about it), but also extends kindness to Denise.  I don’t think her solution will work for everyone, but it fits Alice perfectly.  I also think it will help young teens realize that there may be a solution to their bullying problem that fits them.  Alice never tells a teacher about the bullying, but she does talk to her father and brother about it.  They give her suggestions, and Alice’s brother Lester does show up once at the school to help Alice, but they all seem to recognize that the answer has to come from Alice.
As in most of these books, Alice, Pamela and Elizabeth (her two best friends) continue to question love, romance and their changing bodies.  When Elizabeth has a pressing question that Alice tries to answer, Alice’s father steps in.  Alice has a strong, honest relationship with her father and brother.  They answer her questions with as much information as they think she can handle, and they know what to do if they don’t have answers to her questions.  Thus is set up one of my favorite scenes in this series so far.  Alice’s father takes Alice to the library, and allows her to research the answer to Elizabeth’s question herself.  When Alice is in the library stacks, “A librarian came by to get a book from the shelf, and she couldn’t help but see what I was looking at; she didn’t even blink.  Like it was okay to be curious.” (p. 90)  These are librarians at their most professional – they treat Alice respectfully and as an adult.  I love seeing librarians in such a positive light.  I love middle schoolers and teens getting to see that libraries can help answer questions in a non-judgmental way.  What a terrific scene!
There are many, many other things going on in this novel, some of which are carried over from other books in the series, some of which develop in this novel.  While it is definitely part of the whole series, you can pick up any Alice book and read it as a stand-alone novel.  However I would bet that no matter where you started in the series, you would want to read the whole set!!  I can’t say enough how much I do love Alice and the world Naylor creates in this series.  For the first time, in her biography at the end of the book, Naylor writes that she plans to keep writing the Alice series until Alice turns eighteen.  I’m so grateful – I can’t wait to see how Alice turns out!!

Reluctantly Alice.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Aladdin, 2000, ©1991.
Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark library

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